Music in the Round #51 Recordings In The Round

Sidebar 2: Recordings In The Round

BARTÓK: Rhapsodies 1 & 2 for Violin & Orchestra, Violin Concerto 2
Includes alternative versions of movements.
Barnabás Kelemen, violin; Zoltán Kocsis, Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra
Hungaroton HSACD 32509 (SACD)

Every time I hear of a new release in Hungaroton's "Bartók New Series" I expect something special, and this disc is further fulfillment of that expectation. Although these releases do not feature performers with the biggest names, the musicians recorded do come with unquestioned credentials for this music, commensurate technical skills, and a stylistic élan that cannot be imitated. These can be heard in all the pieces offered here, and one can earn a greater appreciation for them by listening, back to back, to the alternative movements for each piece. Violinist Barnabás Kelemen's tone is rich and strong, and the same can be said of the Hungarian National Philharmonic under Zoltán Kocsis. The sonic perspective is fairly close, which intensifies the experience.

Contrast this with Pentatone's quite impressive offering of the two Bartók violin concertos with Arabella Steinbacher and the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande under Marek Janowski (SACD, Pentatone PTC 5186 350): The orchestra is more distantly and spaciously arrayed, with Steinbacher, all silver and silk, up front. Tempos are noticeably slower, accents less emphatic. Although Steinbacher is tremendously virtuosic, the performance sounds to me more like Prokofiev than Bartók. Unless great playing alone is enough for you, stick with the Hungarians.

IVES-BRANT: A Concord Symphony
COPLAND: Organ Symphony

Paul Jacobs, organ; Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony
SFS Media 0038 (SACD/CD)

This release is welcome news in many ways. First, with the conclusion of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony's highly praised cycle of the Mahler symphonies, it indicates that they will be producing more SACDs, in addition to their venture into music and commentary on Blu-ray. Second, and hardly surprising given the source, the programming will be innovative. Third, if this release is typical, I greatly look forward to what will come next. It seems there will be releases of more traditional material as well; an SACD of works by Beethoven accompanied this one, but was less exciting to me.

The two works here are rarely performed and even less often recorded. Henry Brant devoted decades to transforming into a work for orchestra Ives's landmark Piano Sonata 2, subtitled "Concord, Mass. 1840–60." The result is not a direct transliteration from keyboard to orchestra, nor is it directly imitative of any of Ives's own symphonies, but a rethinking of the "Concord" sonata as if Ives had conceived of it originally as a symphony. Thus, much is instantly identifiable, but much is also instantly surprising while always remaining Ivesian. Those not already familiar with Ives's music might find it tough going at first, but it is exuberant and exciting. The Copland is a relative rarity, having been completed when the composer was 23 and fresh from his studies with Nadia Boulanger. This was long before he adopted the more approachable style of his popular ballet scores, and is decidedly more modernist, and more similar to the work of his contemporaries Ruggles and Varèse. Intricate and inventive, it is also a sonic spectacular, captured in sound superior even to that of the SFSO's Mahler cycle. If you are only a bit adventurous, this is highly recommended.

MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trios 1 & 2
Swiss Piano Trio: Angela Golubeva, violin; Sébastian Singer, cello; Martin Lucas Staub, piano
Audite 92.550 (SACD)

What can one say when faced with sheer perfection? Mendelssohn never has a note or an accent out of place in these two vibrant yet intimate pieces, and from the first note, the Swiss Piano Trio is equally eloquent and ardent. Their sound is warm and unified, and though their tempos never lag, they allow the music to live and breathe. The production team, too, deserves great praise: from the first note we hear detail, balance, and a unified voice from the trio, inside but completely unobscured by a warm acoustic. This disc came on the wings of high praise and lives up to it. The original master is only 24-bit/44.1kHz, but who cares?

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony 6, Pathétique
With: Berg: Lulu Suite. Mozart: "Ach, ich fühl's." Prokofiev: Scythian Suite.
Claudio Abbado, Simon Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; with Anna Prohaska, soprano (Mozart)
Accentus Music ACC10204 (Blu-ray)

Oh, to have been in the audience in Lucerne on that night in March 2010! This disc contains the full concert that brought together one of the world's most senior and acclaimed conductors and this spectacular orchestra of young musicians. From the bracing opening pages of the Scythian Suite, everyone must have known this would be something special, and the sense of occasion continues right through to the emotional embrace and release of Tchaikovsky's Symphony 6. The Prokofiev nearly equals Dorati's blockbuster on Mercury Living Presence with the London Symphony, and while it may not possess the dynamic impact of Dorati/LSO, it does actually sound better, with greater delineation of orchestral detail. I could say the same of the Lulu Suite, which for me finally offers strong competition for, again, Dorati/LSO. Pamina's aria from Die Zauberflöte is like a citrus sorbet before the main course.

I enjoyed this Pathétique more than any I've heard in years, perhaps dating back to Mravinsky in 1956. The depth, power, and intensity of phrasing are outstanding, an assessment probably influenced by blandishments most other recorded performances lack: remarkably dynamic and pellucid sound, and the images of young musicians playing with brio and commitment. I'll let you judge the latter, but the recording engineers have provided excellent ensemble and hall sound while permitting the listener to attend to each individual instrument. Winds and brass are particularly well defined, and I think I could write out the percussion score just from hearing it. If you haven't yet tried a concert recording on Blu-ray, this is the one to start with.—Kalman Rubinson

dbster's picture

I am running their USP-1 pre-amp with the XPA-2 (2 channel with higher output per channel and  more robust power supply than XPA-5) and I love it. When I read reviews in your magazine about "hearing things in the same recording I haven't heard before" I had been doubtful about this perceptual change of the same recording with different amp and pre-amp, but switching these two components in recently proved it true.

I can't attest to the longevity yet but I've called their tech support once and e-mailed once, and had reasonable answers provided quickly. I didn't call for any problem, just two curiosity questions.

So I agree it is something to recommend.

rmcohen's picture

Hi Kal,

I hope you will consider reviewing the Pro version:



Kal Rubinson's picture

Pro version received today.


drblank's picture

But I've read a bunch of people complaining that their Emotiva products either blew up shortly after they bought the product, and some of their products were pulled off the price list within a relatively short period of time.

Emotiva seems like a company that likes to throw up big power numbers, but I looked at the distortion levels and wasn't impressed.

When something sounds too good to be true, then it usually is.

I would look elsewhere for a realiable product.